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Mission Admission

From a parent's point of view, supporting one's child's aspiration to study abroad evokes strong but somewhat mixed feelings.
BY Sunil Sethi |   2011

At 6 o’clock every morning the alarm goes off in the room across from mine but in recent days, I notice, there’s not much point. From the chink under the door I can tell that the light is on for most of the night. My 20-year-old daughter is preparing for her final year undergraduate exams. April, the poet said, is the cruelest month -- it’s certainly true of India. Millions of students across the country are burning the midnight oil for their school and college finals. By about mid-May it will all be over; campuses will close for the summer holidays before reopening in July, when 24x7 TV channels will start pumping out daily shows with titles like “Mission Admission”.

While several hundred thousand high school graduates will approach the race with missionary zeal to enter Indian universities (with top colleges demanding aggregate marks upwards of 90 per cent for coveted undergraduate degrees in subjects like Economics or Commerce) for many others, like my daughter, the race is all but over.

She has set her sights on going abroad for a graduate degree in Development Studies, carefully narrowing her choice to British colleges such as LSE and SOAS---the London School of Economics and the School of Oriental and African Studies. Her applications are in and she has provisional admission. Final placement will depend on a first division in her bachelor’s degree (an aggregate mark of above 60 per cent.) Till that result is out in July, the long, hot Indian summer will stretch interminably. The atmosphere of tense anticipation at home, which began with the application process last September, will continue to thicken. You can cut it with a knife already.

British over American Universities

One reason why many Indian undergraduates prefer applying to British colleges over American, despite higher fees and cost of living, is that British institutions expect 15 years of education, including three years of college…

One reason why many Indian undergraduates prefer applying to British colleges over American, despite higher fees and cost of living, is that British institutions expect 15 years of education, including three years of college, whereas most American universities expect 16 years. Like the British, the Indian bachelor’s degree program takes three years whereas an American undergraduate spends four years on campus. Indians applying for graduate studies in the US, therefore, require an extra year of study, or, in the case of several American colleges and universities, a couple of years’ work experience. At the broadcast network where I work, the field is crowded with energetic and highly competitive undergraduates with their eyes fastened on higher studies ­-- specializing in broadcast journalism, film and television production or media management -- in the US after a couple of years of work. Like my daughter, most of them believe that a degree abroad will dramatically improve their career prospects; like her, they want to be able to compete internationally or return home to be part of a burgeoning economy.

Indian students may regard a foreign degree as a badge of honor but for many Indian parents, who partly or wholly fund the exercise, expense is the operative word.

Not surprisingly, The US Educational Foundation in India (USEFI; website: www.fulbright-india.org) reports that since 1997/98 the number of students from India has soared, recording double digit growth in several years and overtaking China as the leading nation to send foreign students to America in 2001/2002. There were 80,466 Indian students in 2004/05 (the last year for which figures are available) of which more than 70 per cent were taking graduate courses.

The British Council (www.britishcouncil.org.in), which administers the bulk of scholarships to Indian students applying for higher studies in Britain, records similar levels of growth. According to its press officer in New Delhi, 27,000 Indian students received student visas in 2007, registering, on average, an increase of more than 10 per cent a year.

New Educational Destinations

Other countries, such as France, are as keen to woo their intake of Indian students by enhancing the number of scholarships through Campus France (www.campusfrance.org) the French umbrella organization that promotes higher education. Last year, France introduced new legislation to permit foreign students to work for two years after graduating. English, rather than French, is now frequently the medium of instruction in several French technical and professional institutions. On a trip to Paris in January, I found a visibly increased community of Indian students---including three young chefs taking advanced courses in pastry-making at the expensive Cordon Bleu school for haute cuisine.

Steep Tuition Costs

Indian students may regard a foreign degree as a badge of honor but for many Indian parents, who partly or wholly fund the exercise, expense is the operative word. Though the number of scholarships and bursaries has grown, it is tiny in proportion to the number of successful Indian applicants. Competition for admission to top-of-the-line institutions, such as Oxbridge, LSE and Ivy League colleges in America is severe. Scholarships such as the Rhodes are the domain of the academic crème de la crème; several others are reserved for specialized fields of higher study.

Paying your Way

Like my daughter, most of them believe that a degree abroad will dramatically improve their career prospects; like her, they want to be able to compete internationally or return home to be part of a burgeoning economy.

The large body of applicants must look further afield -- at lesser known universities and colleges -- for a combination of the right course and financial assistance. The rest will pay their way -- and an increasing number do. A bafflingly large number of small Western universities and private colleges annually trawl through Indian cities to net paying students, at widely-advertised jamborees nicknamed “degree bazaars”. My daughter and I visited one such education trade fair a couple of years ago. It was a sobering experience. More than a hundred stalls were set up in a large ground with several thousand visitors milling from door to door. We returned home with bagfuls of literature, our heads reeling with pithy lectures from hard selling college counselors, many armed with pocket calculators for rapid rupee-to-dollar conversions to work out minimum costs.      

An average year at an American university -- tuition plus cost of living--- comes to an average of $ 20,000; in Britain it is GBP 20,000. A liberalized banking system offers long-term educational loans; but at interest rates of between 12 to 13 per cent, they don’t come cheap.

A Worthy Cause

Should my daughter gain acceptance for her graduate degree at the college of her dreams later this year, I will have to take out a loan as well dip into my life’s savings to fund her. It could set back me financially for years, so why I am so keen? For two reasons: it was a chance I did not have at her age. And, later, when as a mid-career journalist, I won the Nieman Fellowship for journalism at Harvard University, it was a year that I regard as one of the best of my life. I am impatient for my daughter to have that chance now rather than have to wait.

Sunil Sethi, columnist and TV presenter, is Senior Editor at NDTV and lives in New Delhi.

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